The Two X-Factors of the Sixers Championship Aspirations

FILE – Philadelphia 76ers’ James Harden gestures during the first half of Game 3 of the team’s NBA basketball second-round playoff series against the Miami Heat, May 6, 2022, in Philadelphia. A person familiar with the situation said Harden chose not to exercise his $47.4 million option for next season and will become a free agent — but with no designs on leaving Philadelphia. Harden made the decision to allow the 76ers the flexibility they need to sign other players this summer, said the person who spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because neither side confirmed those plans publicly. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum, File)

The Philadelphia 76ers have been a heartbreaking and frustrating team to follow over the past few years. The franchise dove deeper into a rebuild than had ever been done before in search of the franchise’s fourth championship. Amid all the misses in their stockpile of draft picks, including Markelle Fultz, Jahlil Okafor, and several others, the Sixers managed to strike gold in the selection of Joel Embiid. The MVP runner-up has established himself as one of the premier talents in the NBA and has done everything possible to keep the Sixers championship window open.

Providing Embiid with the proper supporting cast has proved to be the more difficult task. The Sixers have failed to make it past the Conference Semifinals for five consecutive seasons, and the window to win is certainly ticking. While Daryl Morey has certainly done some impressive work around the margins to make the roster deeper, the concern is still in if the Sixers have the right top-end talent to put a ring on their fingers. With the roster nearly complete, there are two clear X-factors that will dictate this.

Sixers’ X-Factor No. 1: James Harden

After years of attempting to make the flawed style of Ben Simmons’ fit alongside Joel Embiid, the franchise has handed the reigns to James Harden. While the first five games with the Sixers were one of the best honeymoon periods to ever happen, the rest of the season left plenty to be desired.

Heading into his second season with the Sixers, a lot is at stake based on how much James Harden has left in the tank. The 33-year-old has done everything possible to endear himself to the franchise and the city of Philadelphia. Harden deserves massive credit for taking the pay cut he elected to. The Sixers would have been firmly against the cap and unable to make the additions they made without this decision from the former MVP.

While Harden deserves his flowers for the sacrifice, the biggest question is still what he can do on the court. Sixers fans have clearly warmed up to Harden; however, this will change quickly if the play on the court is not up to par.

It is clear that James Harden is not the Houston James Harden he once was, but this is not the player the Sixers need him to be. Even with the criticism that he has lost a step, Harden was the only player in the NBA to average over 20 points and 10 assists per game last season. His high basketball IQ and elite passing ability give hope to him finding a way to adjust to his new limitations. If Harden can take a look in the mirror about his play, just as he did with his contract, there certainly are things he can do to add to his impact.

The million dollar question is how much the decrease is due to the lingering hamstring issues and how much is simply old age. 33 years old is far from ancient by NBA standards, but Harden has not been known to be a guy to stay in peak shape. If he can turn back the clock and add some sort of isolation ability or improves three-point shooting, this likely is all the team needs. If he can find lift when attacking the basket rather than the foul-baiting he settled for last season, this changes the game.

The leaps the Sixers are hoping for from James Harden are certainly attainable. He has been in the gym with several notable players and reportedly taking his nutrition and conditioning much more seriously this offseason. If he can be the number two option the Sixers have been searching for, their path through the playoffs will be paved.

Sixers’ X-Factor No. 2: Tyrese Maxey

On the opposite end of the spectrum is Tyrese Maxey. The third-year guard is accelerating in his growth at one of the fastest rates that the NBA has seen. Maxey went from slipping in the draft due to his concerns as a shooter to ranking third in the NBA in three-point percentage in the span of just two seasons.

The electric guard has an eye-popping pace and a well-rounded overall game. He was thrust into the starting role during the Ben Simmons holdout and proved more than capable of producing. It is rare for championship-caliber teams to be counting on a 21-year-old to be a major contributor, but this is exactly the case with the Sixers.

One of the more notable positives of James Harden’s arrival is how much it has unlocked Tyrese Maxey as a scorer. Standing just 6 feet 2 inches tall, his frame would indicate Maxey would be best fitted as a point guard. Now two years into his career, it is evident Maxey’s best asset is scoring the basketball himself. Harden’s arrival has taken playmaking responsibilities off of Maxey’s shoulders and allowed him to simply do what he does best.

Just how much of a leap Tyrese Maxey can take heading into year three will be interesting to see. It is tough to raise expectations much higher than they currently are, but the reality of it is the Sixers will be greatly counting on the young guard’s production. This will especially be the case if James Harden is unable to tap into the fountain of youth and increase his scoring presence.

The Sixers know what they are getting from Joel Embiid. He is undoubtedly one of the best players in the NBA and a superstar-level talent capable of being a primary option. The bench has now been rebuilt in a more efficient way than it ever has been in the Embiid era. The biggest question is if the franchise has the secondary star-level production to elevate them to a true contender.

Whether the production comes from whatever juice James Harden has left in the tank or how prepared Tyrese Maxey is to take center stage does not truly matter. However, the franchise needs the combination of the two to be enough. These two are the X-factors that will dictate if the Sixers have the true ceiling of a championship contender.